The Real World Cleveland (or Detroit, Buffalo, etc.)

Goethe said, “Few people have the imagination for reality”. And that is why we make stuff up. Like reality shows, and the illusion that the state of the union is strong. That last bit was said for much of the last ten years. The words hung hollow for those in the Rust Belt, particularly its cities.

Because while many were popping bottles at the economic house party inside a house of cards, most in these parts already had morning-after eyes. It was hard not to—the reality, and the commonality of the sights: lines along the brick wall tailing from the soup kitchen; the holes in the boarded houses; the pounds upon pounds of government cheese.

Hell, Cleveland’s humble reality show actually began before Real World New Orleans (the 2001 season) to a time that was more so Real World New York (the 1992 season). See below for proof, and folks around here thought the 70’s were bad…

Honing in on the last decade, other poverty indicators bleed through the following maps like reminders through the veil. Notice also that even Cleveland’s inner ring suburbs are not spared which—according to Claudia Colton, Co-Coordinator for the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at CWRU (and creator of the maps)—“created for a situation in which suburban municipalities were not quite prepared to cope with inner city realities”. In other words, the Metro’s pain was being shared (but only to an extent, as you will see).


Of course after the veil was lifted in 2008 that the illusion of rampant personal wealth was just that, then the reality of our condition was not just felt in the Rust Belt, but everywhere. In fact the first decade of the 21st century will now be remembered as modern times colored with the patina of going backwards in the human cause for equity. Said economist Lawrence Katz in a recent New York Times article:

“This is truly a lost decade…We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”

But let’s not kid. Not everyone is hurting. In fact in a recent Vanity Times article called “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” the author states facts about our country’s equality gap:

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe…Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran.

And yes, this pattern of increased income disparity occurs in depressed economic MSA’s as well.  See the map below. Notice the green growing like stacks of cash on the outskirts of the Cleveland MSA. And where are these outskirts exactly? Well, many are in Cleveland’s sprawl areas. Of course with money comes influence. And with influence comes power. And with power comes the right to not so much serve the people as to redefine the parameters from which people get to vote. Gerrymandering, then. In fact in the most recent redistricting map Cleveland is to stand to lose a congressional seat whereas Cleveland and Columbus’ sprawl areas will get the city’s mojo.  A return to glorious age of cities? Not so fast.

And so the illusion still exists. The illusion that the core doesn’t matter. And that the ugly realities of inner city poverty can be tucked beneath the veil of becoming something you are not. Escapism and isolation. The reality show that is becoming America.  To this point, Richard Florida believes America’s “knee-jerk reaction” to reality TV is a direct result of the desire for connection that is a consequence of sprawl and sprawl’s loneliness.  I’d go even further and say it is yet one more way we are sacrificing our imagination for the gift of not having to acknowledge that reality exists.

Real World Cleveland, Real World Detroit: when that happens then maybe we are onto something…

(Note: the above data maps were provided by the great folks at my place of work: the Mandel School of Applied Social Science’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University. Attention data nerds, if you haven’t seen the Center’s integrated data system called NEOCANDO then check it out. Works wonders for the City and region.  My opinions are of course mine and not theirs, so please…)

–Richey Piiparinen

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Filed under Featured, Urban Poverty

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